Carpe Noctem, if You Can
JAMES THURBER’S faculty of total recall has yielded for his readers such prime reminiscences as MY LIFE AND HARD TIMES and other fine gleanings from his early years in Columbus, Ohio. This account of a wakeful night he sent to the ATLANTIC only a few days before his last illness.
ABOUT once a month, after dinner, I gird up my loins, such as they are, take as deep a breath as I can, throw my shoulders back as far as they will go now, walk into the room with the television set, boldly turn it on, picking a channel at random, and then see how long I can stand it. One night, early in August, I could stand it for less than a minute. A chocolate-flavored narrator began by saying, “ The strongest human emotion is a mother’s desire for a baby of her own.” Well, to begin with, if she is a mother, she has a baby of her own, and my old ears are still sharp enough to be afflicted by the crumbling of precision and sense. But this minor flaw was not what caused me to turn off the set.
I do not question the literal truth of the narrator’s statement, in view of the alarming and easily available vital statistics that support it: every twenty-four hours 288,000 babies are born on our planet, and there will be some five million blessed events in the United States alone this year. What really got me was the narrator’s next sentence, and the action that immediately followed it. He said, “This story, strangely enough, begins in violence.” Now what in the name of heaven is strange about violence today in any area whatever, on or off television? No sooner had the narrator made his strange statement than all hell broke loose on the screen. A group of people suddenly began beating the holy bejudas out of each other, and there was the sound of body blows, grunts, and heavy breathing with which so many cop-and-murder television shows begin. I quickly silenced the box and put an old Bing Crosby record on the victrola.
The dangers inherent in discussing dramas of mother love that begin with scenes of violence must be apparent to anyone who is aware of the real, or fancied, craving of television audiences for blood and brutality. Perhaps I should not go so far as to outline some of these dangers, but if I don’t, somebody else is bound to. Among the popular stories of the American past that might be revived in violence for television programs are those involving the Little Colonel, Molly Makebelieve, Peg o’ my heart, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, Pollyanna, the Little Minister, Little Lord Fauntleroy, the Choir Invisible, Beside the Bonnie Brier Bush, the Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come, the Rover Boys, the Bobbsey Twins, and Nize Baby. I am afraid that the televisionaries may decide that millions of televiewers would simply love to watch a program begin with a scene in which a sainted mother or child bride kicks Lord Fauntleroy in the stomach.
To an ancient rememberer like me, the field of old-fashioned books and characters that could be beaten to death on television is a vast one, and includes, I am certain, hundreds that no television executive ever read or heard about: the novels of F. Marion Crawford, V. V.’s Eyes, Freckles, The House of a Thousand Candles, The Inside of the Cup, Black Beauty, Penrod, Sain, Willie Baxter, The Harvester, Helen’s Babies, Edit ha’s Burglar, The Five Little Peppers, and on and on. (Now, lookit, Television, while I shake my gory locks at you. We could work into them old books a sadistic police lieutenant, see? They ain t no limit to the may - hem and mangling we could get into em. All that them books need to make ‘em fit for modern consumption is cops and murder, and crazy guys on the prowl at night, get it?)
Well, let them go ahead with the debauchery of some of these old stories, and we shall see what will happen. I would not have brought the matter up if I did not see a ray of hope. Now that practically everybody is rioting around the world, what is to prevent the fifteen million American men and women now sixty-five years old or older from rising up in angry unison and beating the holy bejudas out of television? It is, as comforting thoughts go nowadays, a comforting thought. Millions of sentimental oldsters, devoted admirers of Prunella, The Wizard of Oz, Owen Meredith’s Lucile, Snow White, David Grayson’s Adventures in Contentment, A Girl of the Limberlost, The Winning of Barbara Worth, and the books of Ralph Henry Barbour, would surely riot in a body and descend on the networks if their old favorites were turned into bloody shambles. (I neither suggest, nor approve of, the use of guns or knives, brickbats or ball bats, but it does seem to me that an oldfashioned egg fight, with both sides armed only with that weapon, might settle something, might undehumanize television’s bloody bang-bangs, or, at the very least, give the management of television channels pause. If we cannot obtain suicease, we could at least find some comfort in pause.)
IT IS worth thinking about, if you don’t think about it at night when you are trying to sleep. I was trying to sleep the other night when I suddenly began thinking about it again. I realized, lying there, that television men might be stimulated by this essay to brutalize Peter Pan, Peter Rabbit, The Wind in the Willows, The Crock of Gold, and also to do violence to some ol the inviolable old Alices of literature. I thought, I regret to say, and probably should not report, ot “Alice Threw the Looking Glass” and “Alice-Spit-in-the-Fire,” and then got up and had a stiff drink and a cigarette after this paraphrase leaped into my naughty mind: “O won’t you dismember Sweet Alice, Ben Bolt?”
I got back in bed, and pulled the sheet over my head, but the unguided missiles of midnight meditation got me up again. I had begun rewriting the opening sentences of a couple of books and of one beloved poem. Evelyn Waugh’s “They were still dancing” became “They were still punching,’ and the first line of Sabatini’s Scaramouche — “He was born with the gift of laughter and a sense that the world is mad” — twisted itself into “He was born with the gift of slaughter and a sense that the word is Sade.” But what really brought me incurably wide awake and out of bed for the rest of the untender night was “’Twas the fight before Christmas, when all through the house, Every creature was sparring, including a mouse.”
My trouble, as you can see, is the gift ol total recall. Thought association, for the total recaller, is endless and often cruel, particularly in the mind of an ancient who is a victim of chronic word garbling. Such a mind, prowling at night, can turn “A Window in Thrums” into “A Widow in Slums,” and “When Knighthood Was in Flower” into “When Girlhood Was Deflowered. ‘ What is worse, the nocturnal mind that fossicks (look it up in the OED) may get around to “Little Boy Blew His Top” and “The Pie-eyed Peeper of Hamlin.”
Now, please do not write me and tell me the name of your psychiatrist. I do not have a psychiatrist and I do not want one, for the simple reason that if he listened to me long enough, he might become disturbed. I say this with unreassuring confidence because of the effect an outline of the present essay had upon a psychologist friend of mine who came to a dinner party at my house when my thoughts on the subject were in the formative phase.
When I had finished talking, the psychologist, whom I shall call Dr. Winterhorn, sat in a corner for a while, brooding over his filth Scotch highball. Then he called to me, and I went over and sat beside him. Since he is also in his sixties and has considerable, if not total recall, he had been silently conjuring up names in old books and stories that I had left out. “You do not mention the televised violence that might be done to other old fictional characters,” he began. “You leave out Frank Merriwell, Tom Swift, Buster Brown, and the Brushwood Boy, to name only four.”Thereupon, being a psychologist, he began lectui ing. “I think that your own clinging to the somnolent and sentimental past is perhaps an indication that you do not realize that the nature of violence, like die nature of humor and comedy, has changed with each decade of this turbulent centuiy, and, on television, is not so much a deliberate or intentional device of writers, producers, and network owners as it is an unconscious projection of the effect upon all of us, or most of us, ot the Zeitgeist, or protean spirit of the changing age.” His voice was rising now and he stood up as if at a lectern. But I can lecture too, and I was a couple of highballs ahead of him.
“You named in your list only male fictional characters of the past,” I said, getting a note of suspicion in my voice. “Why do you leave out Daisy, of the bicycle built for two, Little Annie Rooney, and Sweet Rosie O’Grady? All these long-lost girls were what my mother used to call as pure as the driven snow, and the mugging and manhandling of them could be brought to a high point of terror on television — or should I just say terrorvision?”
“Those silly and ridiculous old American sentimental songs give me the creeps,” said Dr. Winterhorn. “When I was a little boy my father made me nervous by singing ‘And that’s a pretty good sign that she’s your Tootsie Wootsie in the good old summertime,’ and —”
“There is also a Tootsie Wootsie,” I reminded him, “in Meet Me in St. Louis, Louie, but it is somewhat offset by a mild rhythmic violence of the period known as the hootchy-kootchy.”
He seemed nettled, in the manner of all interrupted lecturers. “Let us not go back,” he said severely, “to the turkey trot, the grizzly bear, and the honey bug.”
“Freudian slip!” I exclaimed. “You meant to say the bunny hug.” I extended my arms toward him and said, “Shall we ball the jack?” This clearly upset him and he sat down abruptly. The hour was late now. The teetotalers and light drinkers had departed, but the rest of us had reached the point of no retire and were in for Long Night’s Journey into Day. Dr. Winterhorn and I were both brought another highball.
“Let us strive to thresh this matter out,” said the doctor, who always forgets that he is a man of habit patterns, and that he and I, after night has fallen, but dawn has not yet broken, leave a threshed-out matter in worse shape than it was to begin with.
“I suggest,” I told him, “that you are too squeamish to find and bring out of your unconscious Lovey Mine.”
“I have never known a Lovey Mine,” he lied.
“Yes, you have,” I insisted. “She is the cuddly girl that you and I, when we were in our early teens, wanted to make comfy cozy, and you damn well know why.”
“I do not know why,” snapped Dr. Winterhorn. “I shall ask you to refrain from putting desires in my libido.” He was beginning to slip, all right.
“The reason we wanted to make her comfy cozy,” I said, “is that we loved her from head to toesy.”
A glint came into Dr. Winterhorn’s eyes and he stood up again. “I suggest that your favorite old ballad,” he said, “is Slumber On, My Little Gypsy Sweetheart. Now, why do you want her to slumber on? Why do you not have an ardent desire to wake her up, since you are obviously alone with her in whatever room she is slumbering in?”
“Careful, Doctor,” I warned him. “You are about to expose your own inner conflicts and, if I may say so, sexual disturbances.”
“You may not say so!” he roared.
“Gypsy sweethearts do not sleep in rooms,” I explained, “but in God’s great outdoors, with all the other gypsies standing around, potential voyeurs.”
“Defense mechanism!” the doctor barked. I lit a cigarette with a slow-motion deliberation that I knew would irritate him and said, “You were thinking of Beautiful Dreamer, Wake Unto Me.” I blew a lazy smoke ring, and added, “Lay off my beautiful dreamer, Snooky Ookums.”
At this point my wife hurried over to our corner to break it up. “I shall not desist from further exploration of your husband’s confused psyche,” Dr. Winterhorn said angrily, but unevenly. Since my wife soon saw that she could not break it up, she brought over a pretty girl and planted her between us. “I wanna sing,” the newcomer murmured. “Nobody loves me, I wonder who,” she crooned drowsily. The doctor glowered at her. “Let our host sing,” he said firmly. “He is a prisoner of the patterns of the past. Music and lyrics have changed with the march of time, but he still wants a girl just like the girl that married dear old Dad.” He ended with a triumphant, almost wicked smile, and I heard my wife take in a quick, apprehensive breath.
She knew what was coming (she had heard it a hundred times in recent months), and it came, f clearly proved to my now distraught guest that I have kept pace with the music and the lyrics, the violence, and the horror humor of our decade, for I sang: “I want a ghoul just like the ghoul that buried dead old Dad.” And then I went on to disfigure, in the modern manner, another old tender love ballad: I Wonder Who’s Killing Her Now.
The pretty young lady dropped her half-emptied glass on the floor. “I saw that on television last week,” she said. “It was perfectly wonderful.” Dr. Winterhorn stalked away from us, grabbed the wrong hat in the hall, got in his car, and drove angrily away.
My wife had the last word. “Well, I’ll say one thing for you,” she remarked. “When you throw a party, it always hits somebody.”